Exhaustion is the foreign transaction fee levied on our lives right now. I understand my daughter’s habit of sliding slowly down to the floor during the upward elevator ride to home. By the end she lays sprawled flat, arms and legs flung out, insisting she will only exit by scooching her body out the door. “No, no, no,” she screams in a voice that must bounce and ping its way down the elevator shaft and into the homes of each of the other 19 apartments. I understand it because right now otherwise routine tasks, like grocery shopping, require extra thought and energy, which leaves us at a slight deficit by the end of the week.
The grocery store, with its bright lights, amply stocked shelves of everything from toilet paper to specialty cheeses, and background soundtrack of eighties pop music felt deceptively familiar at first, but only at first. Here there are people constantly cleaning, restocking, and offering assistance. There are half aisles devoted to yerba, mayonnaise, and alfajores. Yerba is better known in North America as Mate. Here it is a staple of many Uruguayans lives; not even a recent 18% price increase is likely to slow consumption. Alfajores consist of dulce de leche sandwiched between two cookies, which are sometimes coated in chocolate. While they can be and are eaten at any time of the day or night, alfajores are found in the breakfast aisle next to a very small selection of cereals.
Things like spices, condiments, milk, and cleaning supplies are, whenever possible, packaged in bags instead of bottles or cartons. At our local grocery store baking soda is not available in any kind of container. It requires a separate trip to the pharmacy and has to be requested from the pharmacist.
After once coming home with fruit scented sponges, we learned to check everything non-edible for added scent. I spent a sneeze-filled half hour in the detergent aisle before finally finding one very dusty bottle of imported perfume- and dye-free detergent. If I wanted to I could always add some smell post-wash with clothing perfume. I laughed at the idea, but since Sunday washing often ends up smelling like it was dried over a meat-laden parilla, I’m reconsidering my rush to judgement.
I have also spent the equivalent of several hours staring at the wall of yogurts that, while not perfumed, are almost universally sweetened and then stabilized with a mixture of gelatin, pectin, agar, and starch. Even the white yogurt called Natural is sweetened with heaps of natural sugar; juice is also mostly only available in sweetened or really sweetened. Yogurt can come in a carton or a yogurt container or a bag or a bottle. The resulting confections, while questionable in their cultures, are often delicious.
I stand in slack-jawed wonder in the dairy aisle while other shoppers push past me to grab a bag of milk and deposit it expertly into a plastic produce bag to prevent leaks. I aspire to their fluid ease and their confidence in their selections. They sail in and out of aisles grabbing packages of this and that while I am still hunched over trying to read ingredients listed in Spanish, or just as often Portuguese, in a font so minuscule it makes my eyes cross. By the end, I am frazzled, often damp with sweat, completely exhausted, and slightly exhilarated. I leave victorious in the moment, clutching my purchases like hard won prizes, and hopeful that next time it will only take me ten minutes to find the right floor cleaner.